Sunday, September 17, 2017

Genre

I'm trying to identify a movie genre that seems a) really obvious and b) I have not heard anyone else describe. If anything I would call them "Lewisian" because they all seem like they come from a book by Michael Lewis.

This is movies that are a recounting of "that time I made a shitload of money unethically exploiting an inefficiency or loophole in the system. We are talking hilarious amount of money for me, a working class joe. This epitomizes how morally bankrupt the system is. Eventually it all came crashing down and I am telling you this from a jail cell."

So, you know, we've got Big Short.


Now I am not referring to the above as plot elements, but rather it's the film-making style that unites this genre. It's got a lot of first person narrating, and "you're not gonna believe this" flashbacks, along with fairly preachy moralizing about how wrong it was that this sort of thing was allowed to go on. There's a lot of montages, and therefore a lot of well known pop-music on the soundtrack to go over these pop montages (usually of excess.)

Compare it to the non-Michael Lewis-based movie "War Dogs."


See? Very similar styles. Or, the upcoming movie "American Made" with Tom Cruise.


Now from purely the style elements, I also count the Lewis movie "Moneyball" among this genre. Obviously it's not about breaking the law, but it is about "exploiting the hell out of an inefficiency, and going from laughingstock to hailed as genius" in a way that allows a lot of these same filmic elements to work.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Fountain Creed Runner

Extremely pithy summary: the Assassin's Creed movie is the story The Fountain wanted to be, but done with the superior film techniques of Blade Runner.

***

Long version: As we've discussed before, there are two approaches to movies that make them truly powerful stories:
  • Humanist storytelling: emphasizing the complexity of characterization, the source of their motives, their deep and multifaceted personality. (Logan is a good example of this.)
  • Archetypical storytelling: characters aren't really people, so much as masks for mythic concepts. The Star Wars Original Trilogy was extremely good at this.
There are great films in both camps, but usually when popular critics attack a movie it's with the perspective that a movie needs to be more successfully humanist. Such criticism complains that the characters' actions "do not make sense" and are shallow stereotypes, and we need more dialogue and backstory to "flesh them out." Sometimes it would be a good idea - but other times it goes against the entire point.

For instance in Star Wars, Darth Vader is iconic as the dark overlord figure. Finding out that his genes have midichlorians, how his mom died and why it made him angry, and the exact circumstances that he lost track of his son and daughter, just undercut his archetypical appeal. (Which is fine, because in this case the Prequels serve as a satire of the follies of humanism.) That's the problem with most "expanded universe" type world-building and fan-fiction, that it's often applied to stories that don't need it.

This leads you down the dark path where movies like Prometheus and the video-game adaptation Assassin's Creed are criticized for their shallow characterization and emphasis on imagery.

Of course, you could make the exact same complaint about a classic like Blade Runner. It's full of holes! What is the backstory that led to Rick Deckard being the asshole that he is? Why is the "best scientist in the world" sitting at the top of a golden pyramid playing chess with hobos? What sort of life are the replicants running away from? How dare Deckard treat Rachel like an object? And dear god why is there so much time spent looking morosely over the blasted cityscapes of Los Angeles?



Except that's all the point of the movie. It's not "inside" that counts, but the actions you do that make you "human." And it's a very good movie because we understand all these characters immediately - Deckard is the archetype of the bitter detective, Rachel just is the femme fatale even though she never thought she would be (and her rich backstory is just a lie to deceive her,) and Tyrell is playing God.

Which brings us to the unpleasant truth of this post: acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky's attempt at a sci-fi masterpiece The Fountain is just not very good.



The Fountain is an ambitious attempt at mixing together three timelines: one story about a medical scientist who can't accept that his wife is dying, one story about a conquistador searching for the fountain of youth to save his beloved queen from the Spanish Inquisition, and one story about a post-human monk taking a dying tree of life across the galaxy to find renewal (which are united by having the protagonist always played by Hugh Jackman.) The moral at the end is that the search for immortality succeeds, but only in providing a chaotic, destructive/creative jouissance that is far beyond what the explorer was hoping for.

Except everyone talks too damn much. For instance with the conquistador story, we understand the figures of Knight, besieged Queen, and greedy Inquisitor very quickly. But we get scene after scene explaining the Inquisition's intentions and the Queen's desperation when yes we get it already. The first modern day scene with the doctor's lab doesn't come across as Jackman playing god and toying with the very elements of the universe, but much more like Tony Stark in a lab being witty with his subordinates and hoping a banal experiments works. It's all completely unsublime.

(The scifi scenes are closer to the pure imagery, but even then rely too much on monologues and turn the whole story more into the internal dialogue of a self-doubting monk, rather than a mystic voyage across space and time.)

They go to so much effort to over-explain what's going on in each timeline specifically, that the rhythm that unites all three timelines is almost completely lost. And even if some fan video explains it for you, you're not really left with any satisfying experience as you watch it yourself. It's not good, because it takes too much of the humanist criticism to heart.

So we have the movie based on the Assassin's Creed videogame franchise, which as far as I can tell, mostly ignores the games and provides very little fan service, and instead tells a very abstract, austere story.


Now that's a very regrettable trailer for a number of reasons, but most amusingly is that it basically provides as much exposition as we get in the entire two hour movie. There is an object of desire that represents freedom and the will to violence. Authority wants to possess this object and thereby destroy both. The protagonist goes on an internal journey to their hereditary past that will reveal the location of this object. There are not elaborate explanations for how this object can "get rid of violence/free-will" and whether it will require submitting all of humankind to genetic therapy or something, or for how the Animus works, it just expects you to accept this Science Fantasy.
Again, the point is that sci-fi and fantasy are relative.
We can all read Lord Of The Rings as alternate-universe Sci-Fi, and the orcs as clones - but that means asking basic questions about, like, where the food comes from if there are no onscreen farms outside Hobbitsville. That stuff doesn't matter in fantasy because, in a fantasy, you don't need food to live. The difference is clearly expressed at the start of Mystery Science Theatre 3000:
"If you're wondering how he eats and breathes (and other science facts), just repeat to yourself: 'it's just a show. I should really just relax.'"
Fantasy begins at the point where you stop wondering. 
-SMG
There are instead a ton of debates between Patriarchal Figure and Athena Figure arguing over the ethical implications of this all. And the actors chosen for this - Jeremy Irons and Marion Cotillard - are the best you could ask for such abstract scene chewing dialogue.

The scenes from the Inquisition time period serve as an effective metaphor for the doomed battle between rebellious violence and authority, and no exposition needs to explain to death why.

Assassin's Creed is a step in the right direction for video game movies but slick action and beautiful visuals are undercut by a hollow hero story. 
-- Ben Kendrick, Screen Rant

No, the slick action, beautiful visuals, and hollowness of the hero are the entire point of the story - right up to the psychedelic ending where the walls of reality between the two timelines start collapsing and every modern day prisoner becomes their past life assassin, complete with cosplay cloak. And there's no attempt at a "scientific explanation" for why the hero suddenly sees all his ancestors appear in the real world and talk to him.

If you read the quotes than its few fans have pulled from the movie, they would usually sound like failed attempts to be Epic in any other franchise, rare peaks above the witty dialogue that are crippled by the self-awareness of the characters. But instead, this dialogue is all there is! Every single line is only intelligible in a grand, metaphorical sense, and is surrounded by silence and statue-esque delivery.

Dr. Sophia Rikkin: Violence is a disease. Like cancer. And like cancer, we hope to control it one day.
Cal Lynch: Violence is what kept me alive.
Dr. Sophia Rikkin: Well technically, you're dead.
or

Dr. Sophia Rikkin: We're not in the business of creating monsters.
Alan Rikkin: We neither created them nor destroyed them. We merely abandoned them to their own inexorable fate.
or

Cal Lynch: You're here to save my soul?
Father Raymond: I understand it's your birthday.
Cal Lynch: Huh... Yeah. The party's just gettin started.

No one talks any other way in this movie.

(Compare this with the dialogue from Blade Runner:

Batty: I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain... Time to die.

or
Tyrell: [Tyrell explains to Roy why he can't extend his lifespan] You were made as well as we could make you.
Batty: But not to last.
Tyrell: The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long - and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy. Look at you: you're the Prodigal Son; you're quite a prize!
Batty: I've done... questionable things.
Tyrell: Also extraordinary things; revel in your time.
Batty: Nothing the God of biomechanics wouldn't let you into heaven for.  )

Everything the Fountain should have done, Assassin's Creed does more effectively. This is how you should talk (and I haven't even gotten into the slow crawls along vistas) in a mythic story uniting multiple historical periods to discover the meaning of life.

I haven't done a very good job yet explaining the AC movie, because it feels like there's so much work to even get people to take movies like these seriously. "Oh hey it's about videogames and critics didn't like it. Why would I waste two hours on this?" Except it's fucking amazing, and they didn't like it because it didn't fall into the videogame ghetto of movies. So go watch it yourself, and form opinions about what it's saying about freedom, violence, and ahistoricity.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Brigsby Bear and Evolving Irony

I just saw the indie flick from the SNL comedy group "Good Neighbor".




Some points.

1. It's very good and you should go see it. I expect it will leave theaters soon (and is only showing in LA and NY as far as I can tell) but then you should be able to watch it on Amazon or something.

Everything after this will assume you saw it and don't mind spoilers.

2. The reviews of it are dreadfully misguided.


Monday, July 31, 2017

Pointed Elsewhere

I've got one review in me, but otherwise for the next two weeks, I will mostly be writing at the new website "Exploring Egregores", about Lovecraft and existential horror. If you like my writing style, you'll probably enjoy that.

Fans of the themes of this blog will particularly appreciate the posts on Hastur and Azathoth.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Cargo Cults: 17776 and Homestuck

Jon Bois' epic about the future of football, 17776 just finished. If you haven't read it, you should, or at least read the first page/chapter.

A number of commentators, both on tumblr and reddit have said it's very similar to Homestuck, the MSPA adventure, and there's definitely an overlap of fandom. Homestuck, remember, is a meta-textual experimental piece of outsider art about kids who find themselves going on fantastical quests in a computer game after the world has been destroyed.



They're not wrong, but they're not right either. And their comparisons are a great example of cargo cults.

The phrase "cargo cult" refers to island cultures that would make first contact with Western civilization, and would see all the material goods they brought, and so try to replicate this process of receiving cargo by building runways or statues of planes or whatever else looked like the Westerners.
So the term refers to worshiping the superficial aspects of something complex, and ignoring the true reasons it works.

The basic explanations for why Homestuck fans like 17776 is "they are chatlogs with different colored text and typing styles to represent different characters" and "JUICE is a lot like Dave" (sarcastic, mean, but so enthusiastic that he can't resist info dumping about things he cares about) and "it's a mix of video and bad, static html" and "it references pop culture."

Except this is a pretty bad explanation. Why? Well for one it's really easy. To make, that is. Like do you know how many Homestuck fan artists have made fanfic with "different colored text" and "someone who sounds like Dave?" It's not a hard thing to try. And yet "capturing the feeling of Homestuck, enough to enthrall fans" is much harder. Why is that? They're mistaking the tactile details for what is actually compelling. Cargo cults.

The first thing that really makes it work is the "rapid recontextualization." Already on chapter one, you have this slow dialogue happening between Nine and Ten over the course of years, slowly revealing stuff but mostly a) entertaining us with their dopishness and b) slowly doling out facts that explain the situation. It's agonizing. And then, on a dime, something unpredictable happens that accelerates the fuck out of the story, giving them instant communication and explaining who the satellites are, complete with dramatic screenshots of satellite related stuff. And after that point everything in the story is in this new context and new speed.

Hussie did that a lot too, with interminable dialogues between John and whoever, point and click hunts by John (or whoever), until a random thing happens and then bam, we know a whole lot more about the (much wider) world in one instant. This is frankly some kind of operant conditioning that addicts a non-negligible part of his audience. It's no surprise it would grab the same people.

Bois in particular does this with the video pieces. It's not just "it uses both static html and video", but the way it uses video. Which is to provide a sudden jump in information, showing the project exploding to a whole new scale. Compare the first video at the bottom of chapter one, with something like Act 2 End: Ascend. They are very similar feelings of suddenly "everything gets real now."

In this way "dialogue, dialogue, snarky/self aware dialogue -- eye opening video of sublime realization (followed by similar dialogue commenting on that video-enlightenment)" operates as a tandem pair, neither entirely working their full effect without the other. This is where Homestuck draws its power, not "someone is snarky like Dave."

Although it's not a coincidence the Dave voice repeats either.

I mean, the most important voice is not the Dave/JUICE voice, but John/Nine. They are, in Tarot terms "the Fool." They are the blank slate protagonist who is only just now learning everything about the world, along with us. Many critics would call this "the audience identification character", but it's not really who we see ourselves as, they are just the lens we can most easily learn about the world from.

Well, it makes sense that the Fool is first introduced to the world by someone smarter than us, but patient and benign. That is the Rose/Ten character. Only after we have the discoverer character, and the teacher character, can we have the third: the meta-aware character. That's Dave, that's JUICE, and that's our actual audience identification. We're genre-savvy, detached from the story, and prone to snarky comments. So both MSPA and 17776 have this same introductory tryptych: Fool, Teacher, Irony-master. It's a good combination for laying out a fictional universe (and explicitly stating to the audience the literary themes of this universe, as Dave/JUICE often does), and that's why people feel such similarity between the two.

Same with the pop culture references. Every work of art references pop culture these days. The key here is that 17776 and Homestuck both blatantly reference pop culture, and aspects that are not at all relevant. You get Con Air and Steely Dan coming up (but not Hillary Clinton or I lik cow or the Wire.) It's decidedly silly stuff, that tells us a lot more about the characters involved, than really makes us feel a connection to them.

Of course, both artworks explore a post-apocalyptic scenario. Homestuck deals with an Earth that has been destroyed, and what the relevant kids do beyond that, and 17776 deals with an apocalypse that ended all struggle and meaning to life, forcing people to discover new meaning. It's about what happened to our world after something major destablized everything important about it. Post-apocalypses are just commentaries on the world as it currently is, but laid bare. And with this tryptych we can get an accessible explanation: the Fool asks what's going on, the Teacher answers in the Watsonian sense, and the Ironist answers in the Doylist sense, explicitly telling us why the author is doing this here.

This works well with the middling desires of most of the audience: they are reading webfic because they want to explore something new, they want world building that is interesting and makes sense diagetically, but they want a little bit of thematic awareness that makes them knowledgable art critics.

Once we have gotten used to this trio (or rather, right before we have gotten used to them, and when we feel we are just getting the groove of the conversation,) both works then suddenly switch gears and add new voices. These are very down-to-earth voices, that assume a high degree of context to understand. (Often when switching scenes, you're coming in mid-scene to the next thing, and the first few lines of dialogue will be the reader trying to catch up to what's going on. It's mildly intellectually challenging, but more, it's constant and addictive.

Now in Homestuck, those new voices are eventually built up and worked into the diagetic plot, whereas in 17776 those voices are instead worked into the overall thematic message (often as explained by JUICE.) This split between emphasis on building plot, vs explaining its themes goes all the way through to the two very different endings (one of which was fulfilling, and the other of which... was really not.)

There are other thematic and mechanical parallels that make 17776 and Homestuck work similarly, and you can play around with them yourself.

**************

However, this obsessing about cargo cults can be a trap, like the old lady asked about what supported the turtle who carried the world on its back. "It's cargo cults all the way down."

The phrase cargo cult creates a dichotomy between that which is superficial and misleading, and that which is deep and the real meaning of the work.

But, breezy thematic analysis (like my own) can be just as cargo-cultish. You list off some words like genre-savvy, paganistic, or ironic detachment and at least some people will just nod along to how cool you sound. There's no guarantee you've found the real meaning, and haven't just found another idol to worship.

This is of course because there is no core, essential meaning to the work.
Holloway’s desire is to ask the alien-gods the meaning of life. This goal is utterly unobtainable, and the film establishes elsewhere that life has no inherent meaning (existence precedes essence) and, even if one could speak to the alien-gods, the message would be something unsatisfactory like 7*7=42 or horrific like Event Horizon’s ‘we don’t need eyes to see’.  
SMG on Prometheus
Especially in art. There is only the superficial.
One should thus invert the usual opposition within which true art is “deep” and commercial kitsch superficial: the problem with kitsch is that it is all too “profound,” manipulating deep libidinal and ideological forces, while genuine art knows how to remain at the surface, how to subtract its subject from the “deeper” context of historical reality. 
Zizek
So you're peeling back the layers of the onion. On the first layer is "different colored text, and sounds like Dave," and the next layer is "uses video as a climactic way to broaden the scope of the work." And in some ways that next layer can be more useful - in this case I think it explains affinity between these two works better, and offers a more reliable predictor of what else fans will like.

But it's still layers of the onion, and you'll never reach some inner kernel of pure meaning. You can never guarantee that you have found "what audiences want."

To address the original analogy, you could imagine some start-up entrepreneur who laughs at the cargo cults of Pacific Islands, and thinks the real idols you need to worship are the global supply chain, and synergy, and strengthening the free market. Now they might have a practical understanding of how to build their company, or they might just think that if they say enough buzzwords then investor capital will be drawn to them and they will get rich.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Gods of America

I've been catching up on American Gods, the prestige TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman's book, by cult favorite Bryan Fuller, of Pushing Daisies and Hannibal. It's a combination made in indie Heaven, but the show has gotten rather little traction.

Which is unfortunate, because it has two sizable virtues that set it apart from the fairly generic Gaiman novel that puts folklore scholars in a disdainful lather.

First, its imagery. Only about half of any episode is about plot and characters, but just as great a portion is scenes of some American subculture and gods associated with them. The show combines fluorescent American "kitsch" and modern day depictions of what a god would be like, extremely well. You can see it in the intro credits:



Where you have this totem pole made of religious iconography, turned into neon regalia reminiscent of a fifties diner. All of the religions are like this, with saturated imagery representing both "America as it sees itself" and "the otherworldliness of gods." It combines really well, and is worth watching for this aspect well beyond its generic plot.

Check out for example, the contrast of the Mexican-version-of-Jesus, alongside the decorated rifles used to shoot at him.



Every episode covers a different subcultural religion this way, portrayed alongside Americana like this.

This aesthetic applies to the "New Gods" as well, who represent forces like media and technology. They're done up in an extremely 80's technicolor way, with bad CGI and David Bowie ripoffs.



It's perfect for this hyperrealism which the Prequels and Prometheus approached. They're larger than life manifestations of our modern pathologies, and they're drawn brighter and larger in order to capture that.

This is frankly, the opposite of Gaiman's normal Gothic aesthetic which is dark and fairly drab (see Neverwhere, or Dream from Sandman.)

***

The other large part of American Gods is class. Gaiman is a British writer, so he writes in his novels about class the same way American liberals write about race: he openly acknowledges it a great deal, usually making his hero from the oppressed group and his villain from the oppressor group, but it's very shallow and condescending portrayal. It's decaffeinated class - Other deprived of its Otherness. This stays the same even as Gaiman writes about America, with characters like Shadow and Laura nominally being from the lower-class and mixed up with prison, but acting and talking like a New York power couple who are suitably diverse, empowered, and self-aware. There is never anything intimidating about Shadow's Otherness (either his race or his class.) He's just a guy like you and me, and not super different from Mr World.

Bryan Fuller took this nominal inclusion of class, and made it a visceral theme of the entire series. Laura really is a nihilistic trailer trash fuck up (and a zombie to boot.) Shadow is still frankly a decaffeinated black man, but Wednesday, Mad Sweeney, Salim and most of the characters from the god-of-the-week short stories actually take care to depict a different, uncomfortable, and somewhat threatening manner that reflects how we actually feel about the lower class.

It's very hard to do this story without class really. Gaiman is describing an axis of the world portrayed more comprehensively in Max Gladstone's novels with lower-class tribalists who worship their fallen, old gods with blood sacrifice, social conservatism, and communal sharing, who are in various stages of conflict with upper-class ascendant lawyers who have crushed the gods and seek to structure society and reality around absolute rules where the most ingenious can flourish and be free of prejudice. More recently, columnist Ross Douthat described it as "ethnonationalist backlash against cosmopolitan finance capitalism."

So the ascendant New Gods are best represented as these upper-class figures. Which Gaiman does with his normal "dark and mysterious aura of entitlement to control everything." Fuller updates them to the current modes of the American upper class and the dialect they use, being less about shadows and luxury, and more about moral presumption and fashionableness.

For instance, after Kid Technology has hung the protagonist Shadow from a tree, he later is forced to apologize for this:

I'm sorry. For lynching you. Hanged a dark-skinned man. Ugh. Was in very poor taste. We're in a weird, tense place racially in America, and I don't want to add to that climate of hatred.

Which is a perfectly hilarious sendup of "I just brutally tried to kill you, but let me frame it in terms of racial symbolism" which our upper class is much more comfortable talking about. (And if it is at all unclear, this is definitely depicted as an insincere, cop-out apology.) It's glib and distancing from the real pain, like a corporate diversity seminar at a company that manufactures tasers.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

MGS5: Quiet Revulsion

The most controversial figure in video game auteur Hideo Kojima's last installment in the Metal Gear Solid franchise was the scantily clad sniper "Quiet."


It's even more disturbing in the game, with motion, and rain, and dancing, and Kojima's typical "in your face" blocking.

But we need to remember that when something is disturbing in art, that's truth. We need to move towards the discomfort, and find why we are so unsettled. So let's fully investigate this character.